Ray Dolby in a sound studio

Ray Dolby: the quiet revolution

Following the recent death of electrical engineer Ray Dolby we take a look at his major achievements.

Along with eye-wateringly expensive Pick n' Mix and bucket-sized cups of fizzy pop, it's difficult to imagine a modern cinema without a bone-shakingly loud multi-speaker sound system to provide audio that is assertive enough to match the action being played out on the big screen. And while these impressive systems have evolved over several decades and involved innovations from numerous engineers and designers, there is one name in particular that has become synonymous with high-fidelity cinema sound: Dolby.

Dolby Laboratories was founded in London in 1965 by Ray Dolby, a young inventor and electrical engineer who had moved to the UK from the US to study for a doctorate in physics at Cambridge University four years earlier. The company initially had just four staff, but over the years would grow into a huge multinational organisation valued at several billion dollars and employing thousands across the globe.

Despite being at the helm of one of the world's most successful electronics companies, Dolby remained interested in the sort of hands-on engineering that had first piqued his interest as a youth, once proclaiming: "I've often thought that I would have made a great 19th-century engineer, because I love machinery. I would have liked to have been in a position to make a better steam engine, or to invent the first internal combustion engine; to work on the first car. All my life, I've loved everything that goes; I mean bicycles, motorcycles, cars, jeeps, boats, sail or power, airplanes, helicopters. I love all of these things and I just regret that I was born in a time when most of those mechanical problems had already been solved and what remained were electronic problems."

Ray Dolby was born in 1933 in Portland, Oregon and grew up in California. A boy of precocious intelligence, he joined Ampex, a company specialising in tape recorders, while still at school and went on to graduate from the elite Stanford University with a degree in electrical engineering in 1957. It's a little-known fact that he later went back to Ampex for a short period and worked on the development of the first home video recorder. But it was in India, where he spent two years working for Unesco as a science adviser, that the idea for his seminal noise-reduction system really started to come together.

Cassette tapes for home use had been introduced by Phillips in 1964, but the quality of the sound was significantly compromised by a substantial amount of background noise and hiss. Dolby noticed that this hiss was particularly pronounced during the quiet passages and developed an ingenious method of reducing it. He used an electronic filter to boost the level of the quiet, high-pitched sounds during recording and reversed this process during playback.

"He had identified a clear question - we need a solution to the noise in audio tape. He knew full well that a lot of people had tried and not succeeded. He eventually found a solution that was very different from what other people had tried in the past, but for him it was almost obvious that it would be the solution," explains Gianluca Sergi, professor at Nottingham University and author of 'The Dolby Era: Film Sound in Contemporary Hollywood'. "Finding a solution was not the problem, the problem was finding someone in the film industry who would adopt it."

The first adopter of the resulting Dolby A noise-reduction system was London's Decca Records, which promptly used it to record an album of Mozart piano concertos. The system proved a success and was bought and used by several other prominent record labels, but at £700 was far too expensive for the consumer market. With this in mind, Dolby put his mind to work on creating a cheaper, less sophisticated system suitable for home use, Dolby B. The first home tape-recorder equipped with it was released in 1968, and by the mid-1970s it was difficult to find a home cassette system that didn't boast Dolby B noise reduction.

Buoyed by this success in the audio and recording fields, Dolby next set his sights on the possibilities of using his system to improve cinema audio. By 1976, Dolby had moved the company headquarters to California, putting him within easy reach of Hollywood and the US film industry. It was around this time that the company launched the Dolby Stereo system, a four-channel system that also incorporated the type-A noise reduction device that had proved so successful in recording studios.

All that was needed was a film, or group of films, that could showcase the new technology. These came in the form of 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', both the work of young directors – George Lucas and Steven Spielberg – who were key figures in the New Hollywood era of filmmaking.

With its large-scale depictions of intergalactic warfare and population of weird and wonderful alien beings and spacecraft, 'Star Wars' proved to be the ideal candidate to show off the dynamic range of the Dolby system. The noise reduction allowed the film's sound designers to use an enormous number of simultaneous tracks without introducing a correspondingly enormous amount of hiss. The system also took advantage of the full stereo range, more accurately placing sounds in physical place to match the onscreen action. "There is no doubt that 'Star Wars' and 'Close Encounters' were really important movies for Dolby," explains Sergi. "Whether the Dolby system would have had so much success without these films is questionable, but that proved that the system worked certainly for this type of spectacular action movie or sci-fi movie. It was a perfect storm really. The technology allowed you to have big screens [and] big sound to go along with it. The problem created in the minds of many people was that it showed what the system could do in spectacular films and yet one of the key things that they wanted to prove with the system was that it worked really well for the recording of quiet moments. If you think about it, it's one of those ironic moments in life. A system that was designed to reduce noise, so that quiet moments would sound clear without too much hiss in the background, ended up becoming famous for films that had very few quiet moments." Soon the Dolby system became so popular with cinema goers that theatres, equipped with it, would prominently advertise the fact. The words 'Dolby Stereo' would often be written as large as the title of the film itself at the front of the theatre. Walk of Fame The cinema would remain an important market for Dolby's technology over the years leading to the company bagging some of the industry's most prestigious awards including two Oscars for scientific and technical achievement, a Grammy, a whole slew of Emmys, an OBE and even a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. But despite all of the plaudits and wealth, Ray remained deeply involved with the company until his retirement in 2009. "Ray was always very generous towards the people who had contributed to the success of the company," Sergi explains. "The first time I interviewed him, he would pause in the middle of the sentence and think really hard about the name of the person 35 years ago who helped me. It didn't matter whether it was the head of Ampex, some genius radio engineer or some kind of entry level employee. He was always very keen on sharing the merit and the glory, and he himself would have been the first one to point out that without the help of some very close collaborators Dolby would never have been the company that it us now." After the Dolby Stereo, the company had further success with its surround-sound and spectral-recording systems. And the innovation continues with the recent release of the Atmos – a multi-speaker system that aims to give moviegoers an even more immersive cinematic experience. "Atmos is interesting," says Sergi. "Many people thought that after spectral recording Dolby would stop there. There were very happy with the technology, they were very happy with the results. After that it was really just software tweaks rather than hardware jumps forward. But it's not entirely surprising that they came up with Atmos. They are not the only ones to have these multichannel systems with a large amount of sources. "Now you can have 64 source points in an auditorium. It provides a much more stable sound field. Wherever you are, you don't hear a drop-off and pick up of a different speaker which is ten metres down the row because that is where the next channel is. You have a much more uniform sound field. There are speakers in the ceiling, so you can have overhead sound: they have a larger frequency range which was always one of the problems for surround speakers in the past. But we'll have to see how filmmakers use Atmos." Could the system mirror the success of the Dolby Stereo in the 1970s? "I think Atmos certainly has the same potential to change cinema that Dolby stereo had. There are issues, like the price of installing it; whether it will remain specialist for the really big screens remains to be seen. But it is a significant step. I think they need one or two champions that could really show off what the system can do." The man who began it all Whether or not the Atmos system does see Dolby changing the world of cinema for a second time remains to be seen. It's very likely, however, that the Dolby name will live on in the company's continuing innovations long after the death of its founder. Ray Milton Dolby, sound engineer and inventor Hon OBE 1986; died in San Francisco on 12 September 2013. He is survived by his wife, Dagmar, his sons, Tom and David, their spouses, Andrew and Natasha, and four grandchildren.

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